“Global Britain” Is Already on Its Own


March 25, 2018

“Global Britain” Is Already on Its Own

by Mark Malloch-Brown

British voters’ decision to leave the EU may have been motivated mostly by domestic issues such as political dysfunction and immigration, but the costs of departure are being felt first on the foreign-policy front. The international response to the recent nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England, suggests that the costs will be high.

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LONDON – British Prime Minister Theresa May has finally had a good crisis. Responding to the nerve-agent attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the placid market town of Salisbury, England, May projected strength – including to her fellow European leaders – by demanding that the Kremlin answer for the crime. As a former home secretary, security is clearly her strong suit, and she has now gone a long way toward repairing her tattered authority in Parliament.

Moreover, May also managed to reach an agreement with European Union negotiators on a 21-month transition period for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the bloc. And yet, despite May’s personal successes, this week might well be remembered as the moment when the foreign-policy costs of Brexit became clear.

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Until now, the British foreign-policy grandees and former ambassadors warning that Brexit will severely damage the UK’s standing in the world have been dismissed by much of the public as discredited elites and fear-mongers. Understandably, Brexit supporters have taken little notice of various straws in the wind heralding the direction their country will take. They are unmoved, for example, by the fact that, after losing a United Nations vote, their candidate pulled out of the race and the UK now has no judges seated at the International Court of Justice for the first time in 71 years.

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The Cranky Boris Johnson with The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Still, if that wasn’t enough to reveal Britain’s new loneliness, the use of a Soviet-era nerve agent on British soil certainly is. Though EU members have expressed their support for Britain and made assurances that Brexit will not disrupt solidarity or security, there are signs that this united front may, in fact, be just a front. The European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his election to a fourth term – a move that rankled the UK. Greece and others also expressed some skepticism about the relationship with the UK as they arrived in Brussels for the European Council summit.

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Across the Atlantic, US President Donald Trump also congratulated Putin. While he also condemned Russia for the Salisbury incident – a rare departure from the Putin-loving corner he has painted himself into – support for Britain on this occasion seems to have been motivated more by his political calculus than a deep sense of solidarity. After several days of deafening silence, Trump was under growing pressure to speak out. And on the whole, his unpredictability and transactional approach to alliances has already called into question Britain’s most important relationship outside Europe.

Beneath the surface, the international response to the Salisbury attack reveals alarming cracks in the UK’s position on the world stage. It is widely assumed that the UK’s weak response to similar incidents, not least the 2006 murder of the Russian defector and former spy Alexander Litvinenko, has convinced Putin that he can get away with such provocations. But Putin may also have anticipated the public outrage over the attack on the Skripals and calculated that EU member states with pro-Russian governments – namely, Hungary, Greece, and, soon, Italy – would veto any strong EU response. By this reasoning, Putin could drive an even larger wedge between Britain and Europe, thus advancing his longstanding goal of undermining European solidarity.

In any case, the UK’s isolation and vulnerability are now abundantly obvious. In its efforts to apply pressure on Europe, the Kremlin has identified Britain as a weak link. And those efforts go well beyond attempted murder on British territory. It seems increasingly likely that Russia also interfered in the Brexit referendum, as it did in the 2016 US election; and that Russian criminal elements have penetrated London’s financial and services sectors.

Britain is a beachhead in Russia’s strategy to undermine European security. Unfortunately, the territorial defense guarantee that comes with NATO membership does little good in a conflict conducted in the shadows through assassinations, cyber warfare, and criminal subterfuge. Nor does NATO membership help in responding to the Kremlin’s exploitation of European dependence on Russian energy, such as when it uses natural-gas supplies as a geopolitical weapon.

The decision by a slim majority of UK voters to leave the EU may have been motivated mostly by domestic issues such as political dysfunction and immigration, but the Skripal episode has made it clear that the costs of departure will be felt first on the foreign-policy front. The rest of Europe will sink or swim together in confronting Russian aggression. But the UK, having singled itself out, is a prime target for a dunking.

In recent years, Russian officials had already become increasingly derisive toward Britain’s presumptions about its international status and power. Like many observers around the world since the Brexit vote, the Kremlin does not look at the UK and see a country able to wield anything approaching global influence. Rather, it sees a country mired in nostalgia – easy pickings for destabilization.

In a sense, “Leave” voters were right that the EU is out of touch with the times, but not for the reasons they thought. One can debate whether the EU is a stale champion of the rules-based liberal international order. But what is now clear is that it is not ready for the emerging post-liberal order.

In the new order, strong states will throw their weight around with little care for the rules-based system that the EU has long epitomized. But at least the EU will have numbers on its side. Putin’s Russia will be just the start of post-Brexit Britain’s worries. The UK will also have to contend with China, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even its most important ally – the US.

Just as Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the consensus-based multilateralism of the post-war era is being supplanted by muscular nationalism. In this new schoolyard, only those with committed friends will be able to stand up to the bullies. Others will have no other choice than to cower and hope for the best.

Rex Tillerson Fired


March 14, 2018

Rex Tillerson Fired

by John Cassidy

https://www.newyorker.com

In the unique and alarming context of the Trump Administration, Rex Tillerson, the departing Secretary of State, seemed like a stabilizing and independent-minded presence.

In the unique and alarming context of the Trump Administration, Rex Tillerson, the departing Secretary of State, seemed like a stabilizing and independent-minded presence.

On Monday, Rex Tillerson, the departing Secretary of State, cut short a visit to East Africa to fly back to Washington. Before he left, he remarked that the nerve-gas attack recently carried out on a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England, was a “really egregious act,” but he also said it wasn’t entirely clear who was responsible. Later on Monday, though, the State Department issued a statement in which Tillerson expressed his “full confidence” in the British government’s assessment that the Russian state was almost certainly the culprit. (In the House of Commons on Monday, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, said it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible.)

“There is never a justification for this type of attack—the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation—and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior,” Tillerson’s statement said. “From Ukraine to Syria—and now the UK—Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens. We agree that those responsible—both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it—must face appropriately serious consequences. We stand in solidarity with our Allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.”

This was arguably the strongest condemnation of Russian behavior that the Trump Administration has ever issued. And it turned out to be one of Tillerson’s final official acts as Secretary of State. At 8:44 A.M. on Tuesday, Donald Trump announced Tillerson’s firing on Twitter. “Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State,” Trump wrote. “He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”

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President Donald Trump and Mr. Mike Pompeo

Some of Trump’s aides immediately insisted to reporters that the President hadn’t dismissed Tillerson because of the Russia statement. Citing multiple White House officials, the Washington Post reported that the White House informed the Secretary of State on Friday that he was going to be ousted. Zeke Miller, of the Associated Press, subsequently filled out this narrative, reporting via Twitter, “WH official says chief of staff John Kelly called Tillerson Friday and again on Saturday. Both calls to Tillerson, the official says, warned that Trump was about to take imminent action if he did not step aside. When Tillerson didn’t act, Trump fired him.” In brief remarks to reporters, Trump said he had been thinking about replacing Tillerson for “a long time,” because “We were not thinking the same.” He also said Tillerson “will be much happier now.”

At least one of Tillerson’s aides pushed back against this White House narrative, however. Elise Labott, CNN’s global-affairs correspondent, reported that Tillerson only found out from Trump’s tweet that he was fired. Josh Lederman, of the A.P., reported, via Twitter, “We got off the plane with Tillerson less than four hours ago. There was zero indication on flight home that this was imminent.” The White House reacted quickly to this counter-narrative. By early afternoon, the White House had fired the aide, Steve Goldstein, who contradicted its version of what had happened.

If Tillerson did know that the President was about to can him, his statement on Russia was perhaps a final act of defiance. On Tuesday, the Russian government again denied responsibility for the attack in Salisbury and said it wouldn’t respond to British claims unless it was provided with samples of the nerve agent used. Trump also spoke with May, finally, and, after the call, the White House issued a statement saying he agreed with her “that the Government of the Russian Federation must provide unambiguous answers regarding how this chemical weapon, developed in Russia, came to be used in the United Kingdom.” However, the statement stopped short of saying Trump agreed with the British assessment that the Russian government was very likely responsible.

It is certainly true that Tillerson’s departure wasn’t entirely unexpected. Although he has avoided criticizing Trump publicly, behind the scenes the former ExxonMobil C.E.O. hasn’t hidden his contempt for the President. Last summer, after Trump gave a wacko speech to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization Tillerson used to lead, Tillerson reportedly came close to resigning. In October, NBC News reported that after a meeting at which Trump called for a tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Tillerson referred to him as a “moron” in a conversation with other officials. One of the NBC reporters would clarify that Tillerson used the term “fucking moron.”

After those revelations, which Tillerson didn’t explicitly deny, there were frequent suggestions that Trump was considering replacing him with Pompeo, a former Republican congressman. Despite this acrimony, the fact remains that Trump announced Tillerson’s firing barely twelve hours after he had forcefully sided with the British government against the Kremlin. Either Trump decided that Tillerson’s show of defiance was the last straw, or he was oblivious (or indifferent) to the impression that firing him at this juncture would create.

To be sure, there were policy differences between Trump and Tillerson—many of them. In addition to the Iranian nuclear deal, where Tillerson was more supportive than the President, trade and North Korea come to mind immediately. Last week, Tillerson reportedly warned White House officials that Trump’s proposal to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports would endanger U.S. national security. On Thursday, just hours before Trump agreed to meet with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Tillerson told the reporters traveling with him in Africa, “We’re a long way from negotiations.”

Maybe that’s why Trump decided to act now, although it wouldn’t explain why he waited five days and then made the announcement on Twitter. It’s also possible that another factor played into his timing. Early Tuesday morning, the Washington Post reported that Roger Stone, the Republican dirty trickster and longtime Trump adviser, told an associate in the spring of 2016 that “he had learned from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that his organization had obtained emails that would torment senior Democrats such as John Podesta, then campaign chairman for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.” This conversation took place “before it was publicly known that hackers had obtained the emails of Podesta and of the Democratic National Committee,” the story also noted.

As Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff, told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham, Trump pays a great deal of attention to how the daily news narrative evolves. After the Post’s scoop appeared, other news organizations leapt on it, and Stone’s name trended on Twitter. In all likelihood, the Post’s story, with its implication of possible collusion, would have dominated the day in cable news. But once the news of Tillerson’s firing broke, it slipped down the home pages, and Stone dropped off the trending list.

Whatever really happened, the fact is that Tillerson is gone—the first Cabinet secretary ever to be fired by tweet. Given his effort to gut the State Department, and the departure of many senior diplomats with distinguished careers in the department, Tillerson’s fall likely won’t be lamented in Foggy Bottom, or in many other places. But in the unique and alarming context of this Presidency, he seemed like a stabilizing and independent-minded presence. At least, he wasn’t a Trump flunky or a Bannonite ethno-nationalist.

With Tillerson’s departure so closely following the resignation of Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive who served as Trump’s senior economic adviser, the circle around the President is getting even tighter. Pompeo, Tillerson’s replacement, is a Trump loyalist who has tried to downplay Russian interference in the 2016 election. And so it goes on.

John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He also writes a column about politics, economics, and more for newyorker.com

The Uncertainty of Multipolarity


January 26, 2018

The Uncertainty of Multipolarity

by Bunn Nagara@www.thestar.com.my

ONE phrase captures the complex and often baffling world of international relations today: a shift towards multipolarity.

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This growing reality is experienced more than it is understood or even commonly perceived. The familiar notion of much in global geopolitics revolving around the US as major pole has stuck.

This is partly because old habits die hard. People everywhere have grown accustomed to the US as leading superpower, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as sole superpower.

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The US global position remains unassailable: despite the hype, China is not yet able to compete for the global superpower stakes and is not doing so. A rising China is now focused only on regional big power status.

A real sense of competition may take hold if the US perceives China as a clear rival and acts accordingly. This would force a largely reactive China to define its own geopolitical space and thus be seen as defending or competing for it.

While much in the US or Western narrative still relates to fundamental changes in today’s world, too much is attributed to it. Many changes now lie outside its scope or tend to move away from it that in itself being a sign of growing multipolarity.

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A sign and a result of China’s rise is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Factors that prompted the AIIB included China’s marginalisation by major Western-led financial institutions the World Bank, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank, despite China’s growing economic strength.

An obvious funding project for the AIIB is China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), although Beijing played down the connection initially. The bipartisan response from a Washington that saw China as a competitor was to snub or spurn them, even quietly pressing allies to do likewise.

However, before many countries could decide on their own response, closest US ally Britain announced its support for both. That triggered more Western countries to do the same.

Britain’s move is not surprising in historical context, despite the question marks it placed on the US-UK special relationship. For centuries Britain regarded itself as first among equals in the West, if not better, in forging profitable global relationships.

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The British Empire had bested all other European equivalents, holding sway long before any unique relationship with the Americans. But while London’s relationship with Asia then was one between colonial master and subordinate, today it is between partners.

Such adjustments can be tricky or elusive. For decades Australia, as another US ally, struggled and still struggles, with geopolitical changes that shift its centre of gravity from the West towards Asia.

Granted much of this shift is only economic, but economics defines much in the modern world. Since geography still matters, being located nearer to Asia than Europe or North America now limits Australia’s options.

To be at the “arse-end of the world”, as two of its Prime Ministers have put it, means Australia all the more needs to reconcile with its regional realities. But while its 2003 Foreign Affairs White Paper acknowledged China’s rise and the 2012 White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century embraced these trends, last November’s update longed for an Australia more closely tied to the West.

Other regions such as North-East Asia have been more realistic and forward-looking. Events there have also testified to change in the direction of multipolarity.

The Obama years had alienated both China and Russia, making them natural allies over a range of issues. This coincided with the re-emergence of both countries that are also among the five supposedly promising economies of BRICS, together with Brazil, India and South Africa.

The West’s snub of Russia leaned in favour of China and Russia’s subordination to Beijing, given China’s larger economy and vast schemes like BRI. Soon China’s prospect was seen to overshadow Russia’s role in Central Asia and Eurasia such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

Meanwhile frosty Japan-Russia ties were a given, particularly with Japan’s status as a US ally and its dispute with Russia over the South Kurile Islands (Northern Territories). But Tokyo and Moscow are set for a change.

Among the prizes at stake are Russia’s oil and gas deposits in its Far East region sought by both Japan and China. This competition works in favour of Russia as energy supplier.

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With close China-Russia ties resulting unwittingly from US policies, Moscow now needed to reboot its relations with Tokyo. As projects like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline have shown, even costs are secondary to geopolitics as a consideration.

To Japan, it could only gain if Russia became a partner or if Russia-China ties loosened, preferably both. Japan is particularly spooked by a sense of growing military cooperation between China and Russia, and their common interests in North Korea.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Russia twice in 2016 to discuss energy and technology with President Vladimir Putin, who returned a visit in December. For years now Abe is seen to be the weaker of the two, so he hedged his bets by acknowledging the prospect of more cooperation with China.

Nonetheless Japan has the technology Russia seeks, and Russia has energy supplies Japan wants. Russia is also courting Japanese investment for its underdeveloped Far East.

Abe gave his Trade Ministry the added responsibility of developing economic ties with Russia, challenging Western-led sanctions against Moscow. For Japan the stakes would seem to be higher.

Visits and meetings between Japanese and Russian leaders continued throughout last year, with Japan as virtual supplicant. Russia did not budge in giving in to Japanese hopes of retrieving four disputed Kurile islands.

Instead, Russia proposed constructing a bridge between Sakhalin and Hokkaido, both as a symbol of peace and as practical infrastructure between both countries. Without the kind of progress in relations Japan has been yearning for, Abe plans to visit Russia twice this year and to invite Putin to Japan next year.

The two leaders will also meet on the sidelines of other summits elsewhere during this time, regardless of their bilateral limitations. Thus the much-presumed pact between Russia and China is not set in stone.

Neither is any prospect of a substantive Russia-Japan partnership. If indeed Russia is wary of a rising China, it is also wary of Japan’s firm alliance with the US.

Although President Donald Trump is supposed to be Russia-friendly, he is under continuing pressure from the same US Establishment keen on preserving the alliance with Japan and wary of both China and Russia.

Meanwhile Britain continues to build a cosy relationship with China unfazed, as Finance Minister Philip Hammond talked up mutual relations in Beijing last month.

Post-Brexit, successive Conservative and Labour governments are consistent in looking East despite the reservations of pundits at home.

And just in case China may seem to have things too easy, even its prized BRI project has already encountered problems with none other than staunch ally Pakistan.

Work on the Diamer-Bhasha hydroelectric dam is suspended over sovereignty issues while talks on railway and airport projects have stalled. Bumps in the road and knots in the belt have also surfaced in Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand.

All told, the other thing about multipolarity is its uncertainty.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.
Read more at https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/behind-the-headlines/2018/01/14/multipolarity-sets-in-the-world-looks-more-confusing-today-because-of-growing-democracy-among-nation/#ICGdqPylXqvyHEvW.99

A Very British Row: May versus Trump


December 3, 2017

Presidential tweeting

A Very British row

Donald Trump’s rebuke to Theresa May was not just another tweet

https://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21731883-donald-trumps-rebuke-theresa-may-was-not-just-another-tweet-very-british-row

Print edition | United States

EARLY morning fusillades of gibberish are nothing new in the Trump presidency. Nor is a tendency to attack allies, or to give encouragement to racist groups. On November 29th, though, the President achieved a rare triple. On waking he seems to have grabbed his phone to attack CNN, give air to an old conspiracy theory and broadcast propaganda from a hitherto obscure band of British xenophobes to his 43.6m Twitter followers. Later in the day he had a go at Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, whose office had earlier criticised him for thinking with his thumb. One sound strategy for staying sane in 2017 has been to ignore Mr Trump’s tweets. Yet this morning barrage revealed traits that go to the core of the man in the Oval Office.

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One is an astonishing lack of curiosity about where information comes from. Britain First, whose nonsense the President retweeted, was until this week at the fringe of the fringe of far-right English politics. Its members are a hapless bunch, too boneheaded to conceal their animus against brown people. The group’s leader, Paul Golding, was expelled from the slightly more mainstream British National Party (BNP), which itself is marginal (it gained more than 1% of the vote in only three of Britain’s 650 parliamentary constituencies in the general election earlier this year). Mr Golding was deemed too racist for the BNP when he picked a fight with its only non-white council member. Mr Golding has a taste for actual fights, too: he has admitted a charge of assault. As hardly anyone in Britain had heard of Britain First, neither presumably had Mr Trump. But the group sounded like America First, which must have been flattering and therefore good. And it seemed to share Mr Trump’s views on Muslims, which was good, too. That was all the information the President needed before giving his endorsement.

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A Special but Unequal Relationship as Trump browbeats Theresa May on Twitter.

A second characteristic is a thin skin. Despite the power of his office, Mr Trump often feels picked-upon. When Mrs May’s staff rebuked him for the Britain First stuff, he could not resist: “Theresa, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!” When Mr Trump was rebuked for criticising London’s (Muslim) mayor after a lethal terrorist attack, his tweets on the subject became more frenzied. Mr Trump felt similarly aggrieved when he was denounced for his equivocal response to a white-supremacist march in Charlottesville (“many sides” were to blame).

Mrs May, whose government badly wants a trade deal with America after Britain leaves the European Union, was taking a calculated risk. Most foreign leaders have already worked out that the president responds well to big parades and badly to well-intentioned criticism. In Mrs May’s case, though, the rebuke was worth it. Mr Trump has, amazingly, managed to unite MPs who can agree on little else right now, as well as to promote interfaith dialogue. Prominent British Muslims were joined in condemnation by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has previously said he thinks Mr Trump is a racist. After his election win last year, discussions about a state visit to Britain began. One sticking point was that Mr Trump wished the occasion to be optimised for pomp: gilded horse-drawn carriages and all. It was thought more prudent, if he came, to helicopter him in to the queen’s garden, avoiding crowds of protesters. If the state visit happened tomorrow, there might be a riot.

The good news, for transatlantic relations at least, is that Mr Trump’s tendency to go after steadfast allies can be put right, with a little stroking. Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, was an early victim, but America’s policy towards it has barely changed. British Prime Ministers are obsequiously paranoid about maintaining what they see as the special relationship with America’s presidents. Moreover, the foundation of the relationship is shared intelligence and diplomacy, which is relatively tweet-resistant. In fact, for Mrs May, who is trying to negotiate the world’s most complicated divorce while hampered by unpopularity and a self-sabotaging cabinet, a spat with Mr Trump could be just what she needs.